Avatars Get Down to Business

Lots of corporations are dabbling in virtual worlds, but no one has found the killer app -- yet.

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Virtual Value

The car company Scion is a case in point. Scion has had a presence in the virtual world since April 2006 and is now established in four sites -- Gaia, Second Life, There.com and Whyville -- according to Adrian Si, interactive marketing manager at Scion, a division of Toyota Motor Corp. "It gives us great exposure," he says.

Not all companies are so upbeat. "What happened is they just didn't get people interested, so they've been going through a bit of a hiatus," Prentice says, noting that over the past year or so, a number of companies shut down their virtual operations or just let their in-world sites turn into ghost towns. But that's not as dire as it sounds. Prentice says it's less a permanent corporate pullout than a temporary pullback for assessments.

"They're refocusing on how to use the technology, possibly using one of the virtual worlds to work better internally," he explains. "So they're looking at using it for collaboration vs. e-commerce. They're setting up meeting rooms in private areas so they can control access. It's a little like teleconferencing."

Some companies find significant value in internal collaboration. Text 100 Corp., a global public relations firm with 31 offices around the world, made its virtual-world debut last August with a companywide meeting.

CEO Aedhmar Hynes, who is based in Manhattan, says she scheduled the meeting so she could update employees on company news and celebrate some business milestones.

But the real benefit wasn't the easy and cost-efficient dissemination of information -- although that was important -- but rather the camaraderie built by the event, she says. "It really made us feel like one company, because everyone had a shared experience. It created a bond," she says.

The event also motivated employees to experiment with ways to collaborate in Second Life, she says.

"Once people created avatars, they were more likely to get involved and do things in Second Life," Hynes says, noting that she has seen smaller meetings and training sessions take place in-world since that first event last year.

Hynes says she initially heard about the virtual world in 2005 and soon realized that it was a technology that could increase internal collaboration as well as collaboration with clients. She also saw the virtual environment as an important marketing opportunity.

Erica Driver, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc., says there are several areas where virtual-world technologies will be critical for companies. One is viewing, analyzing, presenting or interacting with complex data. Another is learning new skills or rehearsing material. (You can't stage a fire on a real oil platform, but you can run through it virtually, she says.) A third is transforming presentations into tours that take place in virtual worlds.

IBM is looking at the virtual world for all of that. Its employees have had meetings, events and training sessions in-world, both at its own internal site and in Second Life.

It's also looking to use the medium to sell its products and services to other companies. "It's just a very powerful way of meeting, interacting and doing work with other people," says IBM executive consultant Doug McDavid. He says that about 6,000 to 7,000 IBM employees have avatars.

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